Wednesday, December 25, 2013

That was the Christmas when....

Merry Christmas morning to all of you!

I'm currently in a car on my way to the airport to visit relatives for a few days. The Christmas Eve Marathon at my church wrapped a little after midnight so I'm exhausted, running on about three or four hours of sleep. Probably. I'm guessing at my condition, actually, since I wrote this post a few days ago and had it posted automatically. At least robots are good for something.

And what did I get you this year? Why, it's a Scarlatti Sonata! K.513. Don't tell me you have that one already. If you do, you can trade it in for one of his other fine 554 sonatas. And sonata related accessories. Sounds like the perfect gifts for hard-core collectors with quite a bit of nearly everything.

But if you do trade it in for something else, you might miss the fortuity of this particular sonata for this particular occasion. Musicologist and Scarlatti specialist John Kirkpatrick thinks of these sonatas as "leaves from a diary" and suggests that the composer, who lived at the Spanish court, in the employ of the queen, and in the company of the royal family, may have left, embedded within the pieces, some of the moments of courtly life. The pomp, the celebrations, the festivities, the seasons of the year, and who knows what all else. It is, just as I mention in the last post, not a popular view with some musically inclined persons, and it is also really guesswork. Yet there is something in this particular sonata that has always made me want to associate it with Christmas, even though there is nothing in the score to suggest that this was what the composer intended.

The reason for it, I think, is that the piece begins in the manner of a pastorale, in a rocking, 12/8 rhythm, and the dotted gestures right at the beginning (play the first four notes a bit slower and you have the opening rhythm of "Silent Night" even if it is melodically upside down) suggest a whole slew of pieces that do overtly conjure up the rocking of the holy infant by his mother.

As the section progresses, things get more lively, and a celebration breaks out, which seems like the thing to do on Christmas morning. Perhaps that long first section is the transition from the mystery of Christmas Eve to the joy of Christmas morning. Then, as all Scarlatti sonatas do, the entire section repeats.

Structurally, Scarlatti's job is to get us away from the opening key and opening them into a new key and with new ideas, then repeat the whole process (literally, with a repeat sign), and then, in a second section, to take us back to where we started, in the originally key, but this time with both of the major musical ideas in that key. It is a musical round trip that makes up the stuff of most piano sonatas, and Mr. Scarlatti did it well over 500 times. But the odd thing here is that, while technically he holds to that overall frame, the tempo keeps increasing, and the music becomes every more boisterous. By the second section, all celebration breaks loose. In a scheme in which balance is the name of the game, this sonata sounds really asymmetrical.

In which case, it seems odd to repeat both portions of the sonata (the second of which is distinctly shorter than the first). Perhaps that was just a custom from which Scarlatti found it impossible to break away. Maybe it isn't so bad getting two chances to absorb all of the musical information. And to anticipate, the second time, how much fun is waiting for us when we get there.

Sonata in C, K.513 by Domenico Scarlatti

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